Trevin Wax is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board. He is also a visiting professor at Cedarville University. The following interview revolves around his recently released book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy. The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith: Wax, Trevin, Vanhoozer, Kevin J.: 9781514005002: Amazon.com: Books
David George Moore conducted the interview. (You can also listen to the Mere Fidelity episode discussing the book with Wax.)
Moore: You recently did an annotated edition of Chesterton’s great book on orthodoxy, so I imagine he had something to do with your writing this one. Orthodoxy: with annotations and guided reading by Trevin Wax: Chesterton, Gilbert Keith, Wax, Trevin: 9781535995672: Amazon.com: Books
Wax: I want to see more people reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and thought a new version with annotations and chapter guides might aid people encountering Chesterton’s arguments for the first time. Looking up all the obscure names, historical references, and locations proved to be an education in itself!
I love Chesterton’s ability to turn things upside down (or we might say right side up), so that we see the truth in a fresh way. Wit and wisdom — that prose that pulsates with passion — is what I hoped to bring to The Thrill of Orthodoxy. I do employ some of Chesterton’s best-known arguments, but my goal wasn’t to write a new Orthodoxy for today; it was to capture something of the spirit and verve of the original by helping readers feel the adventure of Christian faith.
Moore: Early on you write, “Complacent Christianity causes compartmentalization — a convenient separation of Christian truth from the beliefs that frame our day-to-day activities.” Would you describe a few ways that spiritual lethargy drives a wedge between what we say we believe and how we actually live?
Wax: Increasingly in the Western world, religion is relegated to the realm of the private and personal. It’s a sprinkling of transcendence on a life already pointed in a particular direction. When we as Christians see our faith that way, we lose the adventure. Christianity gets tamed. We find ourselves vulnerable to drifting away from the truth through apathy, through a disdain for the doctrinal in exchange for whatever we deem immediately practical, through a loss of confidence in the goodness and beauty of Christian moral teaching, and through a misdirected passion for what we do rather than what we confess. This kind of minimalistic religion — a faith shed of dogma — is what C.S. Lewis critiqued eight decades ago: he said that kind of religion will leave us all doing what we were doing before. It is powerless to truly affect and change our lives.
Moore: Several scholars and leaders, both Christian and not, have told me that we are living in a time of fracture. Indeed, seminal books like Yuval Levin’s, A Fractured Republic and Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers’s, Age of Fracture, are just a few. Two other “f” words that describe our current cultural moment are fragile and factions. I don’t need to tell you that all three of these “f” words are found not only in the culture at large, but sadly amongst professing Christians. How does your book address our current climate of chaos and mistrust?
Wax: The world is shaking and, yes, the church is fracturing on a number of lines, often defined by worldly categories, not by traditionally theological or denominational ones. In this climate, the best way to push back against that kind of fragmentation is to return to truths we know to be solid and enduring. The Trinitarian core of the Christian faith isn’t going anywhere. Faithful Christians a century from now will be standing right where we stand today on those core doctrinal matters. It’s possible we might misread our times, make mistakes in how we engage the world politically, or botch our response to a scandal or crisis, but that has always been the case with the church. I want to point this bungling bunch of believers back to the basics, so that we find a deeper union in those biblical truths that all churches confess, truths that have stood the test of time.
Moore: Switching to three “d” words, we have a growing number of professing Christians who move from disillusionment with the church to deconstructing what they believe and then sometimes deconverting altogether. How does a fresh understanding of the orthodox truths of Christianity offer a spiritual prophylactic against the disillusionment that starts the disastrous slide?
Wax: I’d add another “d” word, maybe in between disillusionment and deconstruction, and that’s doubt. Unfortunately, the church hasn’t always been good at discerning the different kinds of questions people may ask and the kind of heart they come from. Our world celebrates doubt when it comes to religion (although often living with uttermost certainty on pseudo-religious beliefs!), and the church’s response too often is to respond with condemnation of all doubt.
We’ve got to get better at discerning the heart. There’s a kind of deconstruction that starts with the voice of the serpent, Did God really say? But there’s another kind of deconstruction that says, “There’s rot in the house. We need to remove that while fortifying the foundations.” Conservative-types are prone to protect the institutional to the point they’ll wind up defending rot. Progressive-types are prone to purge the church to the point they’ll blow up pillars of the faith. A fresh understanding of orthodoxy helps us discern what’s rot from what’s foundational — what are those load-bearing walls in the house of faith — so that we can embark on the adventure of true reformation.
Moore: Please comment on how the notion of humility today is many times used synonymously with uncertainty. Humility for Jesus was obedience (Phil. 2:8). He was hardly uncertain about who he was, what was true, and what he came to do.
Wax: There is mystery to the Christian faith, and even as we come to know God and his ways, we never know him exhaustively. We reject the modern conception of comprehensive knowledge, a God’s-eye view of things; that kind of knowledge is unavailable to us.
But we shouldn’t assume that confidence in God or certainty about his truth is somehow a sign of pride, or a lack of humility. We can know God. Truly know him. This is certainty, not in the Enlightenment sense, but as expressed through personal trust in Christ the Lord. This kind of certainty is required by humility because we bow to a truth beyond ourselves, to a love far greater than anything we’ve imagined.
Moore: “Cancel culture” is regularly decried by Christians. I’m afraid I’ve seen (and experienced it) among so-called evangelical believers. Instead of having robust conversations on any and all issues, too many Christians resort to muzzling those who want to probe more deeply. How can a proper understanding of Christian orthodoxy better equip us for areas where we disagree? I am thinking of hot-button issues like critical race theory, etc.
Wax: The upside to this kind of debate is that people really do believe that the truth is at stake, and we better get this right. This is a better place to be than the sort of loveless nonchalance that just shrugs at theological dispute and says, “This doesn’t really matter.” I can have a better conversation with another Christian who believes I’m dead wrong on something, who is trying to convince me why their view is more biblical, than I can with a Christian who thinks it doesn’t really matter, so long as we’re all sincere.
The downside is that some Christians are too quick to confuse error with heresy. It’s possible someone is in error and yet still orthodox. We don’t affirm the error; we challenge it, aware that we also may be in error somewhere. Infection in the Body of Christ can set off a fever of theological debate. Fevers help draw attention to infection, but fevers can also kill. And in some corners of the church, the fever does more damage than the error it’s trying to counteract.
This is another reason I point back to the basics, the time-tested truths of orthodoxy. It’s time to take back “discernment” from its status as a dirty word because of how it’s been weaponized by people who are not discerning enough, frankly people who are unable to discern the difference between error and heresy, or who are too quick to pounce on any doctrinal deviation, no matter how slight.
Moore: What are a few things you hope readers will take from your book?
Wax: Most of all, I want Christians to finish this book cheerfully confident. Confident in the enduring nature of Christian truth, and cheerful in trusting that God will bring about his good purposes for his people. I want this book to fire people up in all the right ways, so that we stand firm, with the smile of faith, wowed by the same truths that have thrilled the hearts of Christians for two thousand years.
David George Moore is the author most recently of Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books
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